Introduction to Sociology/Aging
|“I feel like I did this backwards, you know, I felt so old – filled with worry, fear, regret, and stress – until suddenly at about 35 I finally got to feel like a teenager, you know, excited, passionate, and ready to party,” Tom explained in the middle of an interview. I smiled, knowing the answer already since I had heard similar experiences from all of the gay men (all over the age of 50 and from rural areas) I had spoken with in the course of this particular project. I then asked, “What changed?” Erupting into a grin that would likely make any teenager proud, Tom offered his version of a common experience: “AOL my man, AOL came and suddenly I realized there were other gay people, there were people like me, hell even in my own church right here in this little town if you can believe it. I was not alone! AOL man, and my life began, and I had my first date, my first kiss, my first boyfriend, and I lived in those chat rooms man and felt so alive. AOL man, it was my own Sweet Sixteen party that just happened to be 20 years late if you know what I mean.” Smiling, I assured him that I knew exactly what he meant, and as I did every time I heard a similar version of this story, I wondered what it would be like to be a 35 year old teenager.|
Aging (often alternatively spelt as ageing) is both a biological and sociological process wherein human beings experience and accomplish stages of biological and social maturation. Aging may be seen as a relatively objective biological process whereby one becomes older and experiences varied biological developments. Aging may also be seen as a subjective series of social processes whereby people interpret, negotiate, and make sense of biological development in relation to existing conceptualizations of what it means to be a certain age.
Aging is Both Biological and Sociological
An example of the bio-social and objective/subjective nature of aging may be useful. Take, for example, a social being born into the United States in 1980. This person will likely experience a biological development characterized by the addition of years from birth and by biological understandings of the time (e.g., a being born in 1980 would have a life expectancy, medical and legal definition, and contextual series of economic, educational, and other possibilities based upon birth at this time). As such, our person born into the United States during the 1980’s can be expected to follow relatively stable patterns of biological development that will be interpreted in similar ways to others born at the same time.
However, this child born in the United States in 1980 will experience social development characterized by many factors. For instance, was this child raised in a family or an orphanage? What kind of education did this child receive, public or private, what types of educational funding and other educational opportunities did this child receive? Was this child born lower, middle, or upper class? Did this child begin full time work and adopt adult responsibilities as an adolescent, a young adult, an adult, or never? Given the many possible answers to these questions, this person can be expected to follow relatively varied patterns of social development that will be interpreted in different ways by others born at the same time. As a result, this child’s biological age (how far from birth one is) may or may not match this child’s subjective age (how old he/she feels and what responsibilities develop at what age). Additionally, this child may not align with societal age norms by not doing what society expects the child to do at certain ages.
Aging is a complex process of subjective biological and social realities intertwined with relatively objective biological and social standards that shift within and between historical and cultural periods.
Dividing the Lifespan
Human life is often divided into various age spans, like the following:
These divisions are somewhat arbitrary, but generally capture periods of life that reflect a certain degree of similarity. In many countries, such as Sweden, adulthood legally begins at the age of eighteen. This is a major age milestone that is marked by significantly different attitudes toward the person who undergoes the transition.
Socially Constructed Interpretations of Aging
While aging, itself, is a bio-social process, the ways people and cultures interpret ages (e.g., "old," "young," "mid-life") and the ways these interpretations are distinguished by varied biological age markers vary dramatically. In Western societies, where youth is highly valued, people are considered "old" at much younger ages than in Eastern societies where age is often seen to beget wisdom. This emphasis on youth translates into considerable expenditures on makeup, cosmetics, and surgeries to hide signs of aging, particularly among women, but also among men. Ironically, among adolescents, just the opposite approach is taken, as adolescents often try to appear "older", though obviously not too much older.
The labels of "old" and "young" also vary by life expectancy. In societies where lifespans are relatively short (e.g., Chad) or in areas within a given society where violence and / or other means of "early" death are common, one could be considered "old" or "middle-aged" by her mid-twenties, whereas in countries and social settings with longer lifespans (e.g., Japan) and lower levels of "early" death, mid-twenties is still considered young-adulthood.
The activities that are expected of one at different ages is also socially constructed and relative to culture. For instance, retirement only became a "universal" American ideal in the post-World War I era, as the growth of Social Security and private pensions dramatically expanded the safety net available to aging workers who were leaving the labor market. Likewise, the idea of childhood being an age of innocence when children should be kept from adult worries and spend their time pursuing education and recreating is only widely held in highly developed countries and is a relatively recent invention, following the industrial revolution and the introduction of child-labor laws.
Differential Treatment by Age or Ageism
Ageism is prejudice on the grounds of age. While it can be targeted toward individuals of any age, two groups that are often targeted are the young and the elderly.
Treatment of the Young
While most people are aware of the mistreatment of the elderly (see below), few people seem to realize that young people are often subjected to discrimination because of their age. Discrimination against young people is primarily in the area of behavioral restrictions, often by parents, but also in public places like malls and stores. Some stores have gone so far as to limit the hours young people can be in their stores.
While the above are clear examples of discrimination, there are other restrictions placed on young people based on the assumption that they are unable to make decisions for themselves. Examples of such restrictions include:
- inability to vote in elections
- inability to legally imbibe alcohol or smoke cigarettes
- inability to legally engage in sexual activity (this varies by region)
- inability to hold public office
- inability to determine whether or not one can marry
- inability to determine whether or not one can get an abortion (varies by region)
All of the above restrictions hinge upon the idea that young people lack the maturity required to make such important decisions. While this is likely true for some young people, there are also some young people who are mature enough to make these decisions. The above restrictions are tied to specific ages for legal reasons, but such restrictions may not always be followed, do vary substantially by region and culture, and may not always make sense. However, it is also the case that young people can lack the maturity to make important decisions. Legally, when young people make poor decisions, the defense of infancy is used in such cases to argue that such individuals are too immature to be held responsible for their decisions.
Another way in which the young are treated differently is in the marketing practices of corporations. Most children and teenagers have little money of their own, but of the money they have most of it is available for buying consumer goods (despite the existence of children that provide for themselves as early as age 10, most children experience a world where their parents or guardians cover their basic living needs). Children can also be heavily influential on how their guardians' (parental or otherwise) spend their discretionary income. Manufacturers of consumer goods and providers of services (e.g., Disney) are aware of the buying power of young people and target them specifically. The elderly are also targeted as a consumer demographic, but the approaches are different.
Young people are also stereotyped as being both amusing, but at the same time potentially dangerous and disturbing. It is stereotypes like these that translate into the discrimination toward young people described above, and the concerted efforts of social institutions and groups to "tame," "train," or "civilize" youthful self-expression by enforcing existing social norms.
Treatment of the Elderly
While discrimination toward the young is primarily behavioral restrictions, discrimination toward the elderly ranges from behavioral restrictions to the realm of physical abuse. Elder abuse is a serious problem in the U.S. There are nearly 2 million cases of elder abuse and self-neglect in the U.S. every year. Abuse refers to psychological/emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, caregiver neglect or financial exploitation while self-neglect refers to behaviors that threaten the person's own health and safety.
Elderly individuals who are subjected to abuse have at least two times higher risk of premature death than do other seniors. And elders who suffer from self-neglect have an even higher risk (up to 5 times higher) of premature death than do elders who do not suffer from self-neglect. The higher risk of death associated with elder abuse effects both those who are physically and cognitively impaired and those who are more capable.
Additionally, the elderly are often stereotyped. One stereotype of the elderly is that they are inflexible in their attitudes and that they tend to only become more conservative with time. This is not the case - the elderly are quite adept at changing their views and often they become more tolerant as they age. Another stereotype of the elderly is that they are poorer drivers than younger people. This stereotype is also not backed by evidence, with some caveats. Up to about the age of 75, older drivers are actually safer than drivers of other ages. Beyond age 75 response times and visual acuity do begin to decline, leading to increases in accidents. Thus, many older drivers are actually much safer than the youngest drivers (under 18).
Age and Income
Prior to the introduction of Social Security in the U.S. and other programs for the needy, the elderly were the poorest age group in the U.S. Social Security (technically Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance or OASDI) is an income redistribution program that takes taxes from those working and distributes it to those who cannot work or who are elderly enough to be considered past the age at which they can retire. With the introduction of Social Security, the poverty rates of the elderly in the U.S. dropped dramatically, as illustrated in the figure below.
Despite the success of the Social Security program in reducing poverty among the elderly, one unforeseen consequence has been the increasing poverty of people under 18. Conflict theory provides a clear theoretical argument to explain this: Since there are limited resources - in this case limited tax revenue - if those resources go to one group, they must necessarily come from another group. Thus, if the elderly see an increase in their total share of tax revenue, it is likely that some other age group will see a decrease in its total share of tax revenue. Thus, individuals under 18 have seen some programs cut that would have otherwise helped maintain their lower levels of poverty. Even so, poverty rates across all three age groups depicted in the figure above have declined from what they were prior to the introduction of tax redistribution policies like Social Security.
While generally considered a highly successful program at reducing poverty among the elderly, Social Security is currently experiencing problems. The chart below illustrates the problems with Social Security payments for retirees in the U.S. Currently, less money is received from Social Security taxes than is distributed to retirees. However, the Social Security Trust Fund, which is the money that was collected when there was a surplus in tax revenue, will make up the difference in payments for a while, until about 2038. At that point, the Social Security Trust Fund reserves will be exhausted and payments to beneficiaries will drop to about 77% of what they would normally receive.
Of additional concern is where the Trust Fund reserves were invested - in Federal bonds. While Federal bonds are backed by the U.S. Federal Government, it is the Federal Government that borrowed the money. Thus, the Federal Government of the United States actually owes itself the money - over $2 trillion. If the Federal Government is unable to or decides not to pay this money back, the reserves will run out sooner, reducing the payments to beneficiaries at an earlier date.
While the Social Security program in the U.S. is in trouble, the situation of Social Security is not as dire as is that of Medicare, which is a healthcare program for the elderly. The chart below replicates the chart above, but for Medicare. Medicare is worse off as tax income in 2014 was already insufficient to cover the expenses of the program and the Trust Fund reserves are already been tapped to offset the costs. The Trust Fund for Medicare will be exhausted by 2030, at which point the Federal Government will only be able to cover about 85% of the costs of medical treatments of senior citizens. That percentage will gradually decline to 75% by 2046 and remain roughly level from then on.
This is resulting from the lower ratio of employed workers to benefit recipients, a ratio that continues to decrease as the U.S. population grows more elderly (as shown in the figure below).
Age and Gender
While the elderly have seen substantial improvements in their economic situation in recent decades, those improvements have not equally affected men and women. Women, whether working or not, are more likely to fall below the federal poverty line than are men, as depicted in the figure below.
This is of special concern considering women live longer than men, as illustrated in the next figure.
Why women live longer than men is not perfectly understood. Several factors may contribute to this. For instance, men do engage in riskier behaviors than women, reducing their life expectancy. Men are also more "successful" when attempting suicide, which increases the rate of death among men of suicide. Another factor that may contribute to the greater life expectancy of women is the different types of jobs men and women tend to have during their lifetimes. Other biological factors likely play a role, including greater heart health among women, though how much they contribute to the greater longevity of women is not entirely clear. Finally, recent studies and meta analyses reveal that two primary elements in this relationship include men's occupational risk taking combined with women's greater willingness to seek healthcare. In fact, such analysis have noted that the age gap appears to be shrinking, and some suggest this is likely do to both more women entering traditionally male-dominated occupational fields, and more men becoming active in their approach to healthcare access. The combined effect of all these differences may or may not account for the longevity gap between men and women, but it is clear that women do live longer than men and that holds true around the world.
Age and Sexuality
Although a relatively new field of social science research, relationships between sexualities and aging are quite intriguing. Rather than a monolithic sexual career delimited between stages of aging, for example, researchers have revealed a wide variety of sexual practices, patterns, and cultural debates throughout the life course, and in so doing, have complicated previous assumptions regarding aging and sexual activity.   In so doing, researchers have demonstrated that people - as early as ages 3 and 4 - receive constant sexual messages throughout the life course and engage in meaningful cognitive activities attempting to explain, explore, and negotiate these messages in their daily lives. Similarly, researchers have shown that people - as late as ages 70 and 80 - often maintain and desire active sexual lives. Whereas contemporary cultural discourses often paint children and older people as asexual beings, empirical findings consistently demonstrate that such beliefs are false assumptions dependent on socio-cultural commentaries and specified within specific historical, cultural, and (especially) religious understandings of the world. Further, researchers (dating back to at least the 1940's) have consistently demonstrated that sexualities shift and change in varied and nuanced ways throughout the life course, and that people establish, maintain, and / or adapt sexual beliefs, identities, practices, and desires via ongoing biological and social experiences and evolution throughout their lives.
Building on the aforementioned observations, researchers have also noted tremendous variation between heterosexual and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and asexual (LGBTIQA) aging processes. Whereas most cultural assumptions and norms about aging are built upon socially constructed heterosexual ideals, research consistently shows that sexual and gender minority groups experience the life course in vastly different ways, which often include earlier social maturation (often due to early experiences with familial and social discrimination), later sexual experimentation and activity (often due to early experiences attempting to and / or being forced to change or hide non-heterosexual and non-cisgendered sexual desires), and greater commitment to sexual health, education, and safe-sex practices than their heterosexual counterparts (often due to the lack of education and information available to them in mainstream society as well as the lingering lessons and educational protocols that grew out of the Aids crisis). Further, researchers have shown that biological (and to a lesser extent self-perceived or social) age often heavily influences the political stances, practices, and beliefs of sexual and gender minorities with older LGBTIQA people often mirroring "don't ask don't tell" approaches of the past, middle-aged LGBTIQA people often adopting a "politics of respectability" (e.g., seek to be as normal as possible through inclusion into marital, religious, and familial heterosexual institutions), and younger LGBTIQA people typically promoting more radical / Queer / Feminist / Social Justice approaches to sexual politics (see also heteronormativity and LGBTQIA movement histories for further elaboration on the relationship between historical context and sexual politics and for a basic introduction to some sexual political history).   Finally, recent reveals similar influences upon sexual and gender politics among heterosexual respondents, but to date, little systematic research has explored this topic.
Age and Race
Aging does not result in similar outcomes for members of different races. There is evidence that black senior citizens are more likely to be abused - both physically and psychologically and suffer greater financial exploitation than do white senior citizens. Further, recent demographic profiles suggest that social aging varies across racial groups, and demonstrates that minority elders (especially Hispanic and African American identified) typically enter later life with less education, less financial resources, and less access to health care than their white counterparts. Finally, researchers have noted that minority groups' greater likelihood of facing patterns of structural disadvantage throughout the life course, such as racial discrimination, poverty, and fewer social, political, and economic resources on average, create significant racial variations in the stages or age-related trajectories of racial minorities and majorities that may be observed at all points of the life span, and contribute to disparities in health, income, self-perceived age, mortality, and morbidity.. As a result, sociologists often explore the timing (in both subjective and objective conceptualizations of age) of varied life events within and between racial groups while exploring ways that age-related disparities influence the structural realities and bio-social outcomes of people located within different racial groups.
Aging in the US
The geography of age in the US is quite intriguing. The map below illustrates that the elderly are not equally distributed throughout the U.S.
There are concentrations of the elderly in the Midwest and in the South, particularly in Florida. While the high concentration of the elderly in Florida may not come as much of a surprise to most Americans who are aware of the high rate at which people who retire move to Florida, the high concentration of the elderly in the Midwest may be more surprising. This higher concentration is not because the elderly are moving to the Midwest but rather because the young are moving out of the Midwest as they search for jobs. Thus, the two regions with the highest concentrations of the elderly in the US have high concentrations of elderly people for very different reasons.
The city of Pittsburgh offers an intriguing case study of the effects of an aging population on a city. As of 2008 more people are dying in Pittsburgh than are being born. Add to this the fact that many young people are moving away from Pittsburgh to find jobs, and you have the perfect recipe for both population decline and an aging population. One result of this demographic shift is that there is a greater demand for health care provision. Health care has replaced steel as Pittsburgh's biggest industry. Another result of these trends is the decline in students attending Pittsburgh schools. In the 1980s there were nearly 70,000 students in the public school; by 2008 there were only about 30,000 and the number is declining by about 1,000 every year. In short, as populations in specific locations age, the entire social structure must change to accommodate the new demographic, which supports the notion of equilibrium in structural-functionalist theory.
Global Aging Trends
Globally, most countries are seeing the average life expectancy of their populations increase. This translates into a greater percentage of the world's population falling above the age of 65, as illustrated in the figure below.
However, the rate at which the world's population is aging is not uniform across countries, and some countries have actually seen decreasing life expectancies, largely as a result of AIDS. The varied life expectancies and younger populations are illustrated in the map below, which depicts the percentage of each country's population that is over 65.
It is pretty clear from the map that more developed countries have much older populations and a greater percentage of their population is aged 65+. The least developed countries are also the youngest countries as life expectancies are substantially lower.
Aging and Health
While aging is often associated with declining health, current research suggests there are some things people can do to remain healthy longer into old age. For instance, maintaining a positive attitude has been shown to be correlated with better health among the elderly. Older individuals with more positive attitudes and emotions engage in less risky behavior and have lower levels of stress, both of which are correlated with better health.
- Live for ever This article in The Guardian discusses efforts by both scientists and wealthy individuals (who are providing the funding for those scientists) to extend the human lifespan.
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- How do you determine when someone is "old"?
- If the elderly and the young are treated "differently," what does that mean about those who are middle-aged?
- How are the elderly typically depicted in movies and on TV? Why?
- How are children and youth typically depicted in movies and on TV? Why?
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- Global Social Change Reports One report describes global trends in ageing.
- Interactive graphics on aging and death in America
- SAGE Crossroads online forum for emerging issues of human ageing
- Alliance for Aging Research
- Biology of Aging at senescence.info
- Dr Aubrey de Grey: 'We will be able to live to 1,000'
- Aging because lack of genetic info?
- ASFAR Americans for a Society Free from Age Restrictions - NGO against ageism
- International Plan on Ageing of the UN, 2002, Madrid
- International Federation on Ageing Promotes and improves the understanding of ageing policies and practice globally.
- Gerontology Research Group Site also has the official tables of known supercentenarians.